Utahns spoke loudly against recording bill supported by the Salt Lake Chamber and Mormon church, so lawmakers have dropped it

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George , speaks about juvenile justice reforms during a luncheon at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.

Citing a rapid public backlash against their bill, lawmakers are backing away from their pitch to make sweeping changes to the Utah law that allows people to record conversations without alerting others who are being recorded.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the predominant religion in Utah and among legislators, put its support behind the bill shortly after it was filed, saying HB330 would have protected conversations between church leaders and members. Business groups originally sought the law change.

But that’s about all the support the measure’s sponsors received for their idea.

Legislators were inundated with calls, emails, texts and posts on social media almost universally against the bill.

“It does appear that this original concept was universally hated,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican and Senate sponsor of the bill.

Rep. V. Lowry Snow, a St. George Republican who sponsored the bill, said he’s asked the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee not to move the measure forward for now. He’s talking with the Salt Lake Chamber — the business group that Snow says asked for the bill — about whether to move ahead with a scaled-back version this session.

“There was a lot of negative input coming back,” Snow said. “A lot of it, not all of it, but a lot of it was misplaced. Because it was clear to me that they had also not read the exemptions that existed in the bill. Nevertheless, the feedback has been significant that has come back not in support.”

Weiler went so far as to express regret in agreeing to sign onto the bill. (He hadn’t read it when he agreed, he said.)

“I’ve rarely seen a bill that has had so much opposition so quickly,” Weiler said Thursday. “Obviously, this idea is hitting a nerve with the public, and not in a good way.”

The bill would have made Utah one of about a dozen states with so-called two-party recording consent laws that effectively require all parties of a conversation to consent to being recorded.

The Mormon church offered its support in a statement shortly after the bill was filed. A former legislator said he’d been told the church was supporting it because the Salt Lake City-based faith was upset over recently released, surreptitious recordings.

“Church representatives have spoken with legislators to express support for House Bill 330, which is intended to protect the confidentiality of sensitive private conversations, including those between ecclesiastical leaders and their members,” spokesman Eric Hawkins said Tuesday.

Hawkins didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the negative public backlash and the sponsors’ hitting brakes on the bill.

Lane Beattie, the outgoing president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he was talking with Snow about how and whether to press forward with the bill this session.

“There were a lot of questions that came up that justifiably slowed the bill down,” Beattie said. “We’re very sensitive about” the public opinion.

The HB330 that Snow asked to have stalled in its introductory committee reverses the state’s recording law and provides certain scenarios when people could surreptitiously record.

Beattie said one possibility is drastically narrowing the bill, keeping Utah a one-party recording consent state and adding exemptions or scenarios into the existing law when people would need permission to record.

“We’re going to go back to the drawing board,” he said, adding that he recognized the 45-day session was nearly halfway through and he’d avoid a late push to pass a bill that appeared to “short-circuit public input.”

Whatever happens, Weiler said, the bill will either not pass or be scaled back.

“I’m confident it will not get out of the House in its current form, so I won’t have to worry about it,” he added. “It will either be significantly amended or it will just die for this session.”


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Feb. 6: Mormon church backs bill that could prevent recording bishop interviews

The LDS Church is supporting a bill that could protect church leaders from being recorded without their knowledge or consent. The proposal would make it a crime, possibly even a felony, to record anyone in Utah without getting their approval first, something that is now law in a dozen other states.

“Church representatives have spoken with legislators to express support for House Bill 330, which is intended to protect the confidentiality of sensitive private conversations, including those between ecclesiastical leaders and their members,” spokesman Eric Hawkins confirmed in an emailed statement Tuesday.

The church initially declined comment, when The Salt Lake Tribune reached out on Monday amid speculation that Utah’s predominant faith was behind the legislation.

Former state Sen. Steve Urquhart said a legislator told him The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had asked for the bill, HB330, because it was upset over “recently released recordings regarding the church.”

Urquhart said the lawmaker wanted to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions.

The Salt Lake Chamber is also supporting the proposal, with Chamber President Lane Beattie saying the business community wants to protect people who think they’re having a private conversation.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, said he heard from LDS Church representatives after he began working on the bill. He said other members of the state’s religious community also have contacted him about the legislation.

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he had not discussed the bill with anyone this session, until asked about it by The Tribune — but had heard that the Salt Lake Chamber was supporting it.

He said he wasn’t surprised at talk that the LDS Church may be behind it “because some people think the church is behind everything up here.”

John Dehlin, of the “Mormon Stories” podcast, was critical of the legislation.

“This will make it impossible to record Mormon bishops and stake president interviews, Mormon GAs [general authorities], etc. to hold them accountable for the things they say and do,” Dehlin wrote in a Facebook post Monday night.

Dehlin, who was excommunicated from the LDS Church for apostasy, said the bill is a “direct response” to his podcast and requests for bishops and stake presidents to stop asking minors sexually explicit questions during private interviews.

A petition campaign is underway demanding a halt to the LDS Church’s practice of closed-door, one-on-one interviews by bishops with children — sometimes including inquiries about sexual matters — and had collected 14,442 signatures as of Tuesday.

Organizer Sam Young, a former Mormon bishop, has said the petition will be presented March 30 at the LDS Church’s downtown Salt Lake City headquarters.

Currently in Utah, it is legal for one person in a conversation to record it without the other party’s knowledge. The bill would make that illegal, and it would require that all parties consent to being recorded. Snow said the bill is about ”fairness,” and that people should get to decide whether they are recorded.

The bill provides for a number of exemptions. It still would be legal to record public officials or employees making statements related to their formal duty.

Other exemptions include instances where the person making the recording believed the communication was part of an ongoing pattern of harassment or abuse; was likely to be fraudulent, obscene or harassing in nature; or involved or conveyed threats of extortion, blackmail, bodily harm or injury.

The wording of the exceptions — that it’s legal if someone “reasonably believes” there is a threat — is vague enough that it presents a challenge that would have to be settled by a court, according to media attorney David Reymann.

If someone recorded, for example, a bishop’s interview out of a concern of possible harassment, they could be sued. It would then be up to a court to decide whether that person’s concern was a reasonable belief or not, Reymann said Tuesday.

And that might deter people from recording, rather than risk breaking the law, he said.

“What is a reasonable belief may vary from one person to another.”

The bill doesn’t include protections for reporters, and “poses significant risks to legitimate, investigative reporting,” Reymann added.

There are some stories that can only be obtained through investigative reporting … and this law has no exception for legitimate newsgathering by reporters,” he said. “It is a significant concern under the First Amendment when a law starts to criminalize legitimate activity that is necessary for reporters to do their jobs.”

Beyond that, he said, the bill risks a chilling effect for reporters who are trying to uncover information “because they’d be under constant threat of criminal prosecution or civil liability,” Reymann said.

The Utah Media Coalition, which includes The Tribune, plans to talk to Snow about its concerns with the legislation.

If the legislation passes, Utah would become the 13th two-party-consent state in the nation. (Nevada allows recording in-person conversations if only one person is aware of the recording, but requires all parties to consent to recorded phone calls.)

As written, the bill would make nonconsenual recording a crime, ranging from a class B misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. It also would allow for civil action.